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MONUSCO: Last Man Standing

As election-related tensions are rising and operations against the FDLR rebels are looming, MONUSCO is going to lose most of its political and military leadership. Changing personnel at this pivotal point in time is going to make it even more difficult to play a positive role for peace and development in 2015, especially because the momentum of the past year has been largely lost.

The first to leave the ship is Abdallah Wafy, Deputy Special Representative for Rule of Law and Operations in eastern Congo. He will assume the position of Ambassador of Niger to the UN. During his tenure, General Wafy was a well-respected official on relative good terms with the government.

Charged to oversee humanitarian affairs, Moustapha Soumaré will leave for South Sudan this month to serve as the UN Deputy Special Representative for political affairs. Originating from Mali, Soumaré has previously worked with missions in Liberia, Rwanda, Benin, Mali and at the UN secretariat in New York.

Chief of the mission Martin Kobler has recently been nominated as a candidate to replace Valerie Amos as head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). While it is unlikely that he is going to get the position in light of humanitarians’ unease about his role in ‘militarizing’ the mission, it is clear that he wants to get out in four to five months. Kobler is well respected inside the UN and having served in other hardship places such as Afghanistan and Iraq might eye for a position in New York.

Lastly, we should expect General Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz of Brazil to leave this summer. He became the Force Commander of MONUSCO in May 2013. With more than 40 years of military experience, including as Deputy Commander for Land Operations of the Brazilian army and as Force Commander for the UN mission in Haiti, he strikes many as an ambitious and committed commander but one that is increasingly frustrated. He will likely return to his retirement in Brazil.

Their achievements and shortcomings over the past two years

In 2013, the Congolese government faced one of its most powerful adversaries, the rebel group M23. Allegedly supported by Rwanda and Uganda, the group had taken the bold step to occupy Goma in late 2012. Embarrassed that it had lost the provincial capital to the rebels, MONUSCO had to reassert is authority as the ‘sheriff in town.’ After months of deliberations, the international community eventually agreed to send in a 3,000-men force – known as the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) – to accompany the Congolese army into battle against the M23 and other armed groups. Coinciding with the arrival of the force, MONUSCO’s political and military leadership was reconfigured.

With the new head of mission Martin Kobler and Force Commander Dos Santos Cruz, a refreshing wind of change blew through the corridors of MONUSCO. They took to work immediately, eager to turn things around. Together with Deputy Special Representative Abdallah Wafy, MONUSCO had committed personnel ready to take charge and lead blue helmets into uncharted terrain. Within a few months, the leadership scored a number of important wins. Following the crushing defeat over M23 in late 2013, more than 4,000 combatants from other armed groups came out of the bush and surrendered. After 14 years of try-and-error interventions in the Congo, there was reason for hope. The UN was back. And never before had the Congolese army shown such discipline and fighting spirit in the face of a very powerful adversary (video). The Congolese population, army and MONUSCO alike were euphoric.

Riding out the momentum in early 2014, the leadership supported the army in taking on other armed groups, including the ADF, APCLS, and NDC, and relocated most of the mission from the west to the east. Fighting wars while reforming a notoriously slow bureaucracy are by no means an easy feat.

The honeymoon began to sour in 2014

Following the defeat of M23, the euphoria gradually gave way for reality, however. On the front line problems began to emerge. While the international community hand-picked the FDLR as its next target, the army decided otherwise drawing the peacekeepers into combat against the ADF while sidelining them in operational planning. The operations were successful in dislodging the rebel bases but the group’s leadership remains intact while a series of machete attacks killing hundreds of people in late 2013 underscore the continuous volatility of the Grand Nord.

A month into fighting ADF, the mission stumbled into yet another fight against the local defense group APCLS. Unable to resist orders from the army and fully understand the context of the fighting, MONUSCO’s relationship with the local communities as a whole soured in light of the confrontations with many feeling betrayed and insecure. The mission, however, presents the fight as a successful demonstration of the FIB. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” a senior UN official admitted to me.

Throughout 2014, it became evident that the Congolese government had no interest in actually seizing the opportunity to initiate a credible disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program for the thousands of rebels that had surrendered following the demise of M23. Worse, it left more than a hundred men, women, and children to starve in make shift camps later that year as reported by Human Rights Watch.

On the political front, Kobler slowly lost much of his political capital. In the summer of last year, the government publicly scolded him for initiating roundtables with the Congolese opposition and months later expelled his human rights chief Scott Campbell for reporting on abuses by the Congolese security forces. All the while, progress stalled in implementing the regional peace agreement known as Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework and is likely to lose further momentum in 2015 with the announced departure of the United States Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region Russ Feingold.

Unable to deliver on its promise to focus on the FDLR, MONUSCO was then outmaneuvered by the very countries that contribute to the Force Intervention Brigade, particularly Tanzania and South Africa. It became increasingly clear that africanizing a mission with soldiers from neighboring countries might make for a better fighting force but comes with its own baggage of geopolitical interests. The Southern African Development Community – of which Tanzania and South Africa are part of – was heavily involved in brokering a six-month reprise for the FDLR, a decision that not just angered MONUSCO but bore no substantive results by early 2015.

In stunning developments a few weeks later, the Congolese government announced it would launch an assault on the FDLR but based on a new military plan after it had spent months deliberating over joint planning with MONUSCO. Utterly surprised and even clueless, the mission initially struggled to get hands on the new plan and contemplate its next move. Complicating matters, the Congolese army handpicked Generals Fall Sikabwe and Bruno Mandevu to lead the battle against the rebels. Blacklisted by the UN for serious human rights abuses, MONUSCO cannot partake in the operations unless they are removed. For weeks, the mission tried in back-channel negotiations and via public pressure to persuade the government to remove the generals, a plea that fell on deaf ears. Last week then, on 15 February, President Kabila summoned twenty foreign ambassadors as well as Martin Kobler to reprimand them for interfering in what he believes are sovereign matters. Subsequently, the Congolese government renounced any support from the peacekeepers. Some analysts believe the Congolese government – unwilling to confront the FDLR in earnest – deliberately appointed these generals to prevent any cooperation with MONUSCO. Operations are yet to commence.


Despite the challenges of 2014 and 2015, Kobler, Cruz, and Wafy will be largely remembered for their positive track record. Much of what went wrong last year is out of their hands. MONUSCO does not have the political clout many wish it had. Without the buy-in of the Congolese government, there is only so much outsiders can achieve. And right now the Congolese government is consumed with politicking for a series of local, provincial and presidential elections. All the while, MONUSCO is trying to build its exit strategy to leave Congo (here and here).

In many ways, it might be best for Kobler to leave. As important a force for change he is to the mission as much is he an over-ambitious figure in the eyes of the government. He was the right tool at the right time. While one should be careful what to wish for, a new SRSG – some suggest Leila Zerrougui of Algeria – might have another chance at pursuing good offices and exerting positive influence in a country with another crisis in the making.


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